The Rev. Betsy Swetenburg: That's What He Said: Get Behind Me, Satan

When I was taking an Old Testament class in seminary, I remember studying the book of Exodus and becoming very bothered by that matter-of-fact detail in the text that “the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart.” (Exodus 9:12) The God I knew was in the business of softening hearts not hardening them. So, one day after class, I approached my professor, Brennan Breed, and asked how we’re to make sense of that detail, secretly hoping that he’d have a quick but satisfactory explanation and I could shift my focus to other details in the text. Brennan looked at me and said, “Just do the same thing we do with other hard scriptures, pretend like you didn’t see it and keep going.”

He was joking, of course, but there was truth to his sentiment. Sometimes scriptures give us details about God that we’d prefer not to know. And, when we learn something that doesn’t fit with the picture we’ve already developed, it’s easier to pretend like we never learned that detail than it is to frantically shift our image of God to include the newest information.

Today’s text is another one of those passages that makes me want to pretend like I didn’t see it and just keep going. “Get behind me, Satan.” Really? Jesus is capable of saying that to one of his followers? And Peter at that - the one on whom Jesus will build his church!

There’s no way to take the bit off of those harsh words. They even taste putrid as they come out of my mouth. And the task of the preacher is to find the good news to share with you, but this four-word rebuke makes me want to shirk that responsibility altogether, because when I’m honest about this text, I know that these are the very last words I’d ever want Jesus to say to me. These are the last words that I’d want someone other than Jesus to say to me for that matter. Nor are they words I’d willingly say to somebody else. They sound like an uncharacteristic outburst. At least I secretly hope they are an uncharacteristic outburst.

So, it’s easier for me to pretend like I didn’t hear these words from Jesus and keep going. And maybe that instinct is why we’re far more likely to quote what follows this rebuke, reciting Jesus’s instruction for followers to take up their cross and follow. For some reason, it’s a little bit softer on the ears than “Get behind me, Satan.”

I think Peter shares this instinct with us; he wants to pretend he didn’t hear it too. You see, Peter is feeling pretty confident in this text. When Jesus asks, “Who do you say that I am?” he aces the pop quiz. Peter is the one disciple who gets it right. “The Messiah,” he quickly answers. Peter has a well-formed image of Jesus. He thinks he knows Jesus. He thinks he knows what it means to follow Jesus. He thinks he knows what it means for Jesus to be Jesus. So, when Jesus opens his mouth and says that he needs to undergo suffering, face rejection, and die, Peter isn’t prepared for that information.

Jesus, my Messiah, will suffer? Jesus, my Messiah, will be killed? As his mind spins with questions, Peter has a choice: he can either rethink everything he thought he knew about Jesus and about what it means to follow Jesus, or he can put his head down, cover his ears, and pretend like he didn’t hear this unsavory detail.

Of course, Peter does what we’d all do, in a clear and compelling display of humanity, he pulls Jesus to the side and begins to rebuke him, thinking that a quick pep talk would help Jesus erase all the negativity and suffering from his vocabulary. Peter wanted to override Jesus’s narrative because at the end of the day that seemed easier than adjusting his image of Jesus.

Peter thought he’d picked a winner. Peter thought he’d picked a Messiah who didn’t have to suffer. Because how can you have an almighty and all-powerful God if God has to suffer? How can God deliver us if God can’t deliver God’s self? Peter probably thought he was doing Jesus a favor, reminding him of that small but very significant detail that he is both human and God. Reminding him that he could choose to avoid the suffering.

And, I imagine that just beneath Peter’s reminder that Jesus could save himself from suffering was the human yearning we all have at some point to know that Jesus will spare his followers of suffering too. If we’re honest, don’t we all want to duck and cover when suffering shows up? Hoping that somehow, we can avoid it or at least fortify ourselves so we’re not affected by it?

If you’ve lived long enough, then it shouldn’t be hard to remember the times that you’ve tried to avoid suffering. Times that you would’ve been willing to trade anything just to avoid the pain. Maybe you had one (or several) of those moments in the last eighteen months during the pandemic where you felt like bargaining so that you could avoid the weight of suffering. This is one of those moments for Peter. He rebukes Jesus as a last-ditch effort to avoid the pain.

And it’s in this moment, where Peter is trying to avoid the pain, that Jesus snaps with those words, “Get behind me, Satan.” These words are just as harsh as they sound, but what’s nestled in them is Jesus telling Peter “You’re missing the point.” Of course, Peter is tempted by a path that doesn’t include suffering - that’s human. But Jesus knows what Peter hadn’t yet learned: that suffering cannot be avoided. Jesus had already been driven into the wilderness and tempted by the prospect of bypassing suffering. But he didn’t. He stayed the course. He walked through it because facing our pain is part of the sacred journey of transformation.

At thirty years old, David Bailey began to experience awful headaches. He tried to ignore them and refused to see a doctor, but eventually a seizure led to the discovery of a baseball-sized brain tumor and a prediction that he wouldn’t live more than six months. He had two young children and a wife he loved and a promising job in corporate America. Rightfully, David couldn’t help but ask “Why me?” each morning when he woke up. It was the first thought to cross his mind and it stirred up fiery rage in his bones. He wanted God to answer for his suffering. Better yet, he wanted God to put an end to his suffering.

Don’t we all ask that question when we face suffering? Why me? I know that’s true in my life. When I think about the times I’ve faced suffering, I’ve wanted nothing more than a button that would allow me to bypass the pain altogether. And, if I can’t bypass it, then I want to understand it. Because if I can understand the pain, then I can at least try to control it. And I have given myself so much practice trying to control pain.

After a while, David said he realized that his anger toward God was pointless and it wasn’t helping him get an answer to his question… so he changed his question. He began each day asking, “What now?” “What now, God? What will you teach me through this pain?”

Asking what now is what ultimately led David to leave his corporate job and pursue his passion for music full-time. Through song, he shared what he was learning about himself, his faith, and God. He performed all over the country which is how I encountered him and learned his story. He led a youth conference I attended in high school and I was taken aback by how honestly he spoke of his pain. I was amazed that his suffering had drawn him into a deeper relationship with God and others instead of making him want to throw up his arms and walk away from it all.

David outlived that six-month prediction… by fourteen years! And I was just one of many people who came to learn something about pain from him. Through his own suffering, he came to know that pain is always our teacher. And he showed me and so many others that pain is always a chance to learn something new about ourselves and our faith, if we are willing to embrace it.

Friends, we need this text even though our most natural instinct is to skip over it. We need to be reminded that Jesus suffered. I still have moments where I want to sanitize the gospel, preferring a faith void of any suffering. But a faith cleansed of suffering is superficial. We don’t believe in a God who bypasses pain. We believe in a God who is so much bigger that that! We believe in a God who walks with us through the deepest darkness, so that the deepest darkness is the very place where grace is reborn instead of where it goes to die.

My friends, I don’t know where you are today and I don’t know the suffering that your life holds right now, but I do know this - you are not alone. And, I know that the good news Jesus had for Peter is the same good news he has for you - that you will come to know a new life through your suffering. Thanks be to God! Amen.

Will you pray with me?

God of us all, in our suffering, in our pain, in our infallible and inescapable humanity, in our hiding, in our bargaining, in our writhing, you meet us still and we are grateful. May we rest in the assurance that you accompany us in the pain, transforming our wounds. Amen.

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